Here at Watershed we often encourage our volunteers to think big picture when it comes to serving in the community. Transformation (whether it be in an individual or in an entire system) rarely occurs overnight, so, in addition to celebrating little victories, we also ask people to consider the potential “ripple effect” of their efforts over the long haul.

Trusting the ripple effect can be challenging at times. We don’t always get to see the impact of our actions, and it takes real faith to believe that our efforts are meaningful even when we don’t have the immediate, tangible evidence to prove it. However, every now and then we do get to catch glimpses.

Natalie’s story begins as the result of a ripple.

“I had some wonderful volunteer tutors when I was a student in CMS,” Natalie remembers. “So I was thankful that I was going to have a chance to pay that forward!”

Two years ago Natalie Smith began volunteering at Walter G. Byers School through Watershed’s Catapult Initiative. She started off at Byers the same way most Catapult volunteers do: she tutored an elementary school student for 30-45 minutes each week. As she continued to show up to the school every Wednesday, she started to get to know a few of the staff members. One of those staff members was the school librarian.

“By the end of the school year I found myself helping out with the first book fair that the school had been able to put on in a number of years,” Natalie recalled. “During that week I was able to meet a number of teachers, and when End-of-Grade Tests (EOGs) came around, they asked if I would help proctor.”

Natalie had no idea when she signed up to help proctor EOGs that she would be paired with a teacher she had so much in common with.

“I was paired with the art teacher, Mrs. Barnes, to administer EOGs,” she said. “Through conversation we realized she actually used to work at the fabric store that my family now owns! We bonded over our shared interest in creativity.”

The chance pairing of the two during testing seemed more like more than just a mere coincidence. The conversations Natalie and Mrs. Barnes had during EOG week stuck with the art teacher, and ripples continued to spread when she approached Natalie with a request. 

“Mrs. Barnes actually approached me with the idea of selling the kids’ art work at our store. She had previously sold a few pieces at another store to earn some extra money for supplies for her classroom, but [that store] was closing and she was hoping we could sell a few pieces here and there.” 

The proposition seemed fantastic to Natalie, but she thought she could take it a step further.

“When she brought me all of the artwork she had, I knew I could do more than just sell a few pieces,” Natalie said.

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Natalie turned 26 on November 19th, and about a month before her birthday she began inviting her circle of family and friends to celebrate with her… by purchasing artwork from her favorite elementary school students. Soon her Facebook and Instagram pages were filled with pictures of hand-drawn elephants, owls, cherry trees, and monsters. Her goal was to sell 26 pieces and give all of the proceeds back to the art department at the school. 

“My weekly involvement at Byers has been a beautiful silver lining [in a difficult 2016],” Natalie said. “The greatest birthday present I could think of was convincing the people who love me to give back to the teachers and students who have filled my heart with joy every single week.”

Natalie’s special fondness for Byers probably would have been motivation enough for her to dedicate her birthday to supporting the school, but, on top of her love for the community, she also just so happens to know a little more than the average person about how important artistic and creative opportunities can be for a child.

“I spent years studying the emotional benefits of creative outlets for children and strongly believe that creativity is necessary for any child, but even more so for children who are in high stress situations outside of school,” Natalie explained. “Some low-income schools in CMS have lost their art programs completely due to budget cuts, while the rest are left with extremely limited resources. I want to make sure that the students at Byers are given opportunities to lean into their creative strengths and become producers and admirers of beautiful work.”

When the ripple effects of so many passions and experiences collide at once, there’s no denying that something special is in store. 

“Weaving together my love for students, creativity, and lending a hand to our local schools was such a gift for my heart,” said Natalie.

Not surprisingly, Natalie reached her goal of selling 26 pieces of art, raising $775 for the art department at Byers in the process. All of the money went towards purchasing new art supplies so students can embrace their creative passions and talents more fully.

More than a decade ago Natalie was a CMS student who appreciated the time volunteers spent with her at school. Today she is a 26-year-old woman with a passion for paying it forward to some of her youngest neighbors in Charlotte.

As the ripples continue to spread, it’s anyone’s guess how the students impacted by Natalie’s generosity will grow and go on to touch the lives of others.

Even though her birthday campaign has ended, Natalie still has artwork for sale! All pieces are $15 and proceeds go directly to Byers School. Email natalie.dixon19@gmail.com if you're interested in purchasing any of the pieces below. For more information about how you can get involved with Catapult, Watershed's school partnership initiative, email cedric@watershedcharlotte.com.